Romantic Disentanglements


Since today’s lectionary readings include Paul’s exhortation on the “great mystery” of Christian marriage, I thought it a seasonable time to reflect on that beleaguered institution.  Paul’s profound meditation features the imperative that furnishes the interpretive key for the entire passage, “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  One might also have heard the bowdlerized “shorter form,” which substitutes for the aforementioned verse (and others) the more treacly encouragement to “live in love.”  In an age in which love is so easily sentimentalized, something is lost in the process.  The stern, objective ring of “subordination” has the advantage of making the minimum requirements of marriage admirably clear—and refreshingly unromantic.

Striking this more dutiful note also begins to deflate the arguments of marriage’s recent detractors.  Take, as one instance among many, the case against marriage recently published in the Atlantic. The author, lamenting and justifying her own divorce in the same breath, levels a single, recurrent indictment against contemporary marriage: it cannot sustain romance.  Given her already overtaxed energies, she lacks the fortitude to “work on falling in love again in her marriage” or to “rekindle the romance;” never again can she “authentically reconjure the ancient dream of brides.”  Along the way, she protests touchily against the saccharine testimonials on Oprah and the romance-through-work ethic of marriage’s self-help industry.  To be sure, the author does not come across as enamored of hard work, but her skepticism about re-igniting the spark through candlelit date-nights deserves sympathy.  If the flame of passion constitutes true marriage, then hers seems destined to be a phony.

Our author’s sad predicament calls to mind G.E.M. Anscombe’s defense of other unromantic concepts in the traditional theology of marriage.  Since one seldom runs across a defense of the “marriage debt” by a woman who was at once wife, mother, and analytic philosopher, I took note.  Her essay, “Contraception and Chastity,” explains,

[Natural conjugal affection] may be lacking or onesided. If a kind of love cannot be commanded, we can’t build our moral theology of marriage on the presumption that it will be present. Its absence is sad, but this sadness exists, it is very common… The command to a Christian couple is: “Grow in grace and love together.” But a joint command can only be jointly obeyed. Suppose it isn’t? Well, there remains the separate precept to each and in an irremediably unhappy marriage, one ought still to love the other, though not perhaps feeling the affection that cannot be commanded. Thus the notion of the “marriage debt” is a very necessary one, and it alone is realistic: because it makes no assumption as to the state of the affections.

Anscombe’s pastoral realism is sobering.

Romance, of course, is quite a good thing.  In the best circumstances, marriage would provide the spark of affection and the security requisite for self-actualization.  But these are not the essence of wedded love.  Perhaps then our language ought occasionally to reflect the steely resolve at marriage’s core, lest couples find themselves too abruptly disillusioned.  As a Jesuit missionary in Russia once told me, “The people do not riot because of hard conditions; they riot because of disappointed expectations.”


6 Responses to Romantic Disentanglements

  1. Agustín Maes says:

    Excellent piece. It’s very refreshing to finally read something about the institution of marriage that is free of the romantic sentimentalism so constantly attached to it. Bravo.

  2. Jim says:

    Ditto on the ‘refreshing to read’! This insight really hits home for me. As a professional Social Worker who works to strengthen marriage I see real commitment to the marriage as key to martial success. I see the quid pro quo, relationship skills marriage workshops as often causing a couple problems by focusing on what each is getting out of the marriage rather than the marriage. Shared committment to the marriage and the meaning of marriage e.g. mutual subordination are the road to success. Anscombe is strong medicine we need.

  3. David says:

    Well said.

    My wife and I talk about this all the time as we witness the dissolution of some of the relationships of our contemporaries. Inevitably one of the spouses in the troubled relationship begin some such babble about “falling out of love” with the other. Our response is usually a pointed “so what.” No one can vow the impossible and no one expects that one should “feel in love” toward their spouse at all times. More importantly, while the lack of such feeling may betray a lack of love for the other, it can just as easily be the result of a bad day. I have vowed to love my wife until one of us dies, which means that I have vowed not to “do” things that are inconsistent with loving her (i.e., adultery). I have not, and the Church does not require that I vow to “feel” lovingly toward her. It is a nice by-product of actually loving her but to the extent people find themselves disappointed in marriage because of this lack they are being unrealistic.

  4. Michae! Magree, SJ says:

    I appreciate Anscombe’s thought so much, but I must say I have always found the passage you quote, Aaron, as being callous rather than realistic. Indeed, callous, and therefore, unrealistic.
    What she is trying to do is get us back to essentials, back to what can be commanded a couple. The affections cannot be commanded, therefore they are inessential. But is marriage reducible to the command?
    I agree that what needs to be destroyed in our romanticism is the idea that a commitment is only permanent if the affection is permanent. But what needs desperately to be retained is the notion that affections, emotions, are based in perceptions of reality. They need to be discerned, and that is hard work, but they are crucial. We recognize things are “sad” because of the lack of some good that should be present. What the “very common” sadness indicates, and what I think Anscombe is not giving enough credit to, is just how great a good the natural affection of marriage is.
    Would we advise engaged couples who feel no natural affection to marry?
    Would we advise married couples who do not feel what they used to feel for each other to take comfort in the “marriage debt”? I feel like we should rather advise them to pray, and pray eagerly and with great hope, for new eyes, for a new heart. Those new eyes and that new heart might never come, and that shouldn’t change the commitment, but Anscombe seems to act as if one should not bother seeking it.
    Indeed, among my high-school students I can see the culture rapidly destroying romanticism, destroying any link between affection and sexual activity. Their affect-less approach to the opposite sex is not leading them to see sex in the context of marriage, commitment and mutual subordination. Granted, there are lots of reasons for this, but I think we need to recognize that our culture moves between two extremes, of an over-valuing the emotions and a radical under-valuing. To harp on how inessential the emotions are only fights against one extreme.

  5. Aaron Pidel says:

    I hear you, Michael. There are many people who have become so cynical about love that they have divorced sex from personal feeling altogether. Hence, “bring back the romance” movements seem relatively wholesome by comparison to the hook-up culture on a college campus.
    However, if romance (of a certain kind) is exalted as a reaction, then it also leaves couples unprepared for the vicissitudes of even a normal married life. Then the essence of repairing a strained marriage is seen as recapturing romantic feelings through chocolates and “date nights” (a project whose feasibility the author seemed rightly doubtful about). One might wonder though, whether the unacknowledged goal of such a project is to recapture a bygone time when love was effortless, rather than to recommit oneself to the sacrifice of mature love (which “mutual subordination” suggested to me, at least).

    Lastly, I should probably have been clearer about what a tragedy the loss of romantic affection is in a marriage. Anscombe acknowledges this too, of course, but perhaps, like me, was being a bit “essentialist” about marriage in order to provide a contrast.

    Here’s a link to a story in which relatively unromantic love seems to have “saved” a marriage.

  6. Kathleen E. Urda says:

    I really appreciate this entire discussion. I read the Sandra Tsing Loh piece when it was first published, and, while I thought it was self-serving to say the least, I agree with Aaron that her weariness at the thought of “date nights” etc. as the fix to her dryness after twenty years of marriage is understandable. I think Aaron’s point that there’s something woefully inadequate and perhaps even immature about such remedies is well taken. I am reminded of a great film, Intermezzo, with Leslie Howard and Ingrid Bergman. Howard plays a professional violinist. He is happily married and his marriage had a passionate beginning; he and his wife fondly remember the “springtime” of their love. The wife comments that such springs come only once in a love. Howard, however, experiences another such spring when he falls deeply in love with his little girl’s violin teacher (Bergman). The film seems to make the point that love, like most things in life, has its youth, its maturity, etc. and that moving through the stages is difficult. When Howard goes back to his wife, it is a moving moment and there is real emotion and love there but not the springtime love.
    I also think, however, along with Mike, that the desire for true eros and emotional fulfillment is far from immature. There is a real and tragic lack that needs to be talked about when they are absent in marriage. This tragic gap between the emotions and the commitment in marriage seems to be what John Paul II grapples with in The Jeweler’s Shop. The mystery is that romantic love and marriage promise the fullness of love but are bound to finitude.
    In the end, I don’t believe we can ignore either the need for affection and eros or the need for sacrifice and commitment in marriage. There is undeniable suffering when any are absent and discussions that acknowledge this and that acknowledge that all these essential components of marriage do not, at times, occur simultaneously, are desperately needed. We also need to be reminded of what both of you are saying: prayer and grace are at the heart of healing the rupture between erotic and affectionate emotion and willed commitment.

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